Proposal to allow mayor to appoint, terminate fire and police chiefs catches many by surprise

Uzelac

Aldermen Ben Uzelac, D-7, wanted to table "indefinitely" a proposed amendment to an ordinance that would call for the mayor to appoint and terminate the city's police and fire chiefs. At left is Katie Awerkamp, D-6. David Adam

QUINCY — An amendment to the Code of Ordinances for the City of Quincy that would call for the mayor — instead of the three-person Board of Fire and Police Commissioners — to appoint and terminate the city’s police and fire chiefs raised a few eyebrows.

The City Council chambers were filled for Tuesday night’s meeting, with most chairs filled by policemen and firefighters wanting answers about the amendment presented to aldermen for the first time.

The proposal calls for the mayor to appoint the fire chief and police chief with the advice and consent of the City Council. The term of appointment for either position would be determined by the mayor, but it should not exceed the term of the mayor holding office. The Board of Fire and Police Commissioners would continue to appoint all other officers and members of the fire and police departments.

Rob Copley, the city’s police chief since April 2004, didn’t learn about the proposed amendment until Monday’s agenda was released Friday.

“I don’t want to get into the pros and cons, but I definitely would have appreciated somebody mentioning it to me and maybe getting my opinion,” he said after the meeting. “I’ve only been around here for 41 years. It may have behooved them to hear something I’ve got to say.”

Bernie Vahlkamp, appointed by the police and fire commissioners to replace Joe Henning as fire chief in July, said the news of the proposed amendment “caught him by surprise.”

“I didn’t know there was a problem with the current method they were using,” Vahlkamp said. “I’d like to see a little bit more discussion before (the amendment) went to the council to figure out what (aldermen are) thinking and why they were wanting to change it.”

Mayor Mike Troup said the cost of testing the candidates during the search for Henning’s replacement concerned Aldermen Mike Farha, R-4, and Mike Rein, R-5. Rein was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Farha questioned during the July 19 City Council meeting why the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association was needed during the hiring process. Troup explained the City Council voted a couple of years ago to seek potential outside candidates for the police and fire chief positions, and the association helped vet those candidates.

“When you’re looking beyond promotion from within, there are some added costs to bring the right people in, for travel, for interviews, etc.,” Troup said Tuesday. “What brings it to a head is since we just recently went through a search for a chief, it was a reminder for some of the longer serving alderman that no elected officeholder for the city really has any say who the chiefs are. The chiefs of these two departments represent the largest portion of the city employees and over half of the city budget, without any say from elected officeholders.

“So that’s the (aldermen) saying, ‘Hey, look, we need to do something different.’”

Barry Cheyne, who is joined by Kerry Anders and Steve Meckes as police and fire commissioners, said $11,400 was paid to the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association during the fire chief search. Eight candidates were interviewed, and six of them came from outside Quincy.

“We were complying with the ordinance that was adopted by the City Council in 2017 to look at both internal and external candidates,” Cheyne said.

Troup told aldermen his staff talked with outside legal counsel and learned few communities allow a police and fire commission to select and appoint chiefs.

Copley believes the proposed amendment doesn’t address the problem identified in the most recent search.

“If they have a problem with how much money was spent by the commission without going through them first, then address that,” Copley said. “That’s not what they’re doing. I can’t get too far in the weeds right now, because it’s not been explained to me by anyone in the city administration.”

Vahlkamp says his role as the fire chief should be worrying about the public safety of the community.

“I shouldn’t be worried so much about the whims of the mayor, about the whims of one person,” he said.

Cheyne said he’s been a part of hiring 50 new policemen and firefighters and promoting 32 others within the departments during his eight years as a commissioner.

“We have a pretty good sense of how business is conducted,” he said. “We’ve never had a complaint about our process. We’ve never had a pushback. We’ve never had a legal issue.

“My sense is there’s a couple people who would like to select their own guy. There’s some angst about how much money was spent, but it was vetted with the last administration. They knew how much it was going to cost. We had a contract. It was all done legally. We gave an update to the new mayor before he took office. I stood before the City Council on June 28 and gave an update before we got into the actual interview process on July 8. Our due diligence is solid.”

Cheyne said the commissioners recently used the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association to conduct interviews for promotions for lieutenant, captain and assistant chief within the Quincy Fire Department. 

“We paid (the IFCA) $11,400 to do that work, and that bill was approved by the council without any question,” Cheyne said. “What’s the difference? If we want to keep a true, thorough-tested process for candidates at this level, are we saying we don’t want to invest that amount of money? I think it’s shortsighted. If you want to select the best candidate, you spend the time and the effort.”

Police Det. Nick Eddy spoke during the public forum at the beginning of the meeting.

“The Board of Police and Fire Commissioners serve a distinct purpose in maintaining the integrity of our fire and police departments, he said. “They ensure the board provides us insurance against favoritism, retaliation and corruption. These things are vital. This is a system of checks and balances that I feel are important we maintain. If we take this away from our board, we’ll lose what is becoming more and more important in today’s times of having that transparency … in place.”

After Troup explained why the amendment to the ordinance was proposed, Ben Uzelac, D-7, asked, “Do we want that accountability? Why should this body have that accountability? I don’t want it.”

Eric Entrup, R-1, also said, “I don’t want it.”

Uzelac said he didn’t know about the ordinance amendment until Friday.

“A little heads up would have been nice,” he said. “This room is full. Did you talk to any of these guys first?”

“Not to all of them,” Troup said. “I made calls today.”

“Today?” Uzelac said.

Farha then spoke up.

“Yes, you did talk to us,” he said. “I’ve had this position for more than 22 years. I believe accountability rests with the elected officials, not with a committee. The people can fire us. They can’t fire chiefs. We’re not having a current problem, but I’ll be honest, over the last 22 years, we’ve had multiple problems. We’re the ones who are ultimately accountable. 

“Personally, I think it’s a great idea, because then you know if things don’t work out who to argue with and who to tap.”

Uzelac made a motion to table the ordinance amendment “indefinitely,” but he failed to get a second.

Aldermen also approved:

  • A three-year agreement with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1108, which was recommended by Mays, Transit Director Marty Stegeman and the Quincy Personnel Committee. The union will receive raises of 2.75 percent each of the first two years and a raise of 3 percent in the third year.
  • A special event application to hold the annual Veterans Day parade on Nov. 6 along Maine Street.
  • A resolution authorizing demolition of 1112 N. Seventh, 1433 Monroe, 525-527 N. Third, 635-637 Lind and 316 Ohio. A bid of $77,500 from Miller Construction was accepted.
  • A resolution authorizing asbestos abatement at 1233 N. 11th and 610 S. Seventh. A bid of $8,892 from Thornburg Abatement was accepted.
  • Extending a rental agreement with Bergkamp, Inc., of Salina, Kan., to spend $10,500 for an additional 30 days to use a FP5 Flameless All-In-One Patch truck.
  • Paying $118,900 to Brown Electric Construction Company to install 235 LED light fixtures on various light posts and traffic signal posts throughout the city. The annual savings from these lights is projected to be $13,407.
  • A special use permit for a planned development at 3120 N. 12th to operate an office/shop for an on-site water and fire damage restoration service. A first presentation was read, and aldermen voted to waive the second presentation to vote on the permit.
  • Sending to the Traffic Committee a request to review the crosswalk at 11th and Maine in front of Quincy Medical Group.
  • The appointment of Rein, Tony Sassen, R-4, and Jeff Bergman, R-2, to an ad hoc committee to review an ordinance amending the city’s municipal code for establishing rules for remote participation in public meetings.

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